Applause greets a baby's first steps. Richard LaFleur's brought gasps.
He had seemed healthy, the first child born to Nalini LaFleur after four miscarriages. But when Richard tried to walk, his legs betrayed him.
For 15 years, the dark-eyed South American young man endured pain and stares. With each step, his knees collapsed and nearly scraped the ground.
Had Richard been born in this country, doctors likely would have corrected his defect before those first steps. But in tiny, poor Canje Village in Berbice, Guyana, modern health care is a luxury. It seemed Richard would never stand tall.
Then one day a woman from Michigan with an iron-willed devotion to Jesus Christ put Richard on a plane to the United States. She had searched two years for a surgeon who might fix the boy and now, finally, she headed to Tampa Bay.
Richard sat on an examination table. He told Dr. Drew Warnick he had seen athletes excel on artificial limbs. He said amputation would be better than this.
"I just want to walk,'' he said.
Without a cane or crutches or pain.
"I just want to walk.''
With that, a "village'' far from his own circled around him. Strangers in Pasco County gave him shelter, treated him like family. In return, he gave them so much more.
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Given Lita Kharmai's reputation for finding free medical care for poor children in her native Guyana, it was just a matter of time before she discovered the "boy who walked on his knees.'' Word gets around, although Kharmai — as she does with almost everything — gives God the credit.
God, she said, inspired her to create Children's Circle Mission 12 years ago. She has brought 20 poor children to the United States for treatments for horrific conditions ranging from a toddler's third-degree facial burns to another born with an exposed bladder. Most are from Guyana, where Kharmai lived until she turned 18. Others are from Liberia, Nigeria and Mongolia.
Richard's condition was defined as "crouch gait,'' a muscle weakness most often associated with cerebral palsy. His leg muscles had contracted over the years and would have to be surgically released so he could walk upright. Even then, he would have to wear braces and endure physical therapy and possible follow-up surgeries.
Kharmai, 55, hoped to find an orthopedic surgeon near her home in Rockford, Mich., where she worked full time in the corporate office of Meijer superstores. She made calls and sent emails during lunch breaks and after work. Eventually she decided to try Tampa, where her sister Tara Kewallal works part of the year as a registered nurse.
Just when she thought Richard might have to go without treatment, she found hope from Dr. Jeffrey Neustadt at Children's Orthopaedic and Scoliosis Surgery Associates, which agreed to help the boy for free. Drew Warnick, a 34-year-old surgeon with only two years practice, got the assignment.
That commitment enabled Kharmai to get a visa for Richard, but now she faced another challenge. This was a rare case, and it would be months before a team of doctors could evaluate Richard and determine whether to perform surgery. Kharmai had to find a family willing to shelter Richard, and she had only a few days before she had to return to work.
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Years earlier, Kharmai had shared her ministry with the congregation at the First Baptist Church of Citrus Park. Somebody there suggested a teacher and guidance counselor at Citrus Park Christian School, Leann Williams. She and her husband, Scott, did not hesitate. Richard moved in to their home in Trinity. Richard attended the Christian school.
"God provided,'' Kharmai said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Warnick learned all he could about crouch gait from a doctor in Minnesota who had become an authority. Warnick, who had traveled to several Third World countries, looked forward to his meetings with Richard.
"He's an amazing kid,'' the doctor said. "He never expected anything. He was always so grateful. I just felt really lucky to be the one who got to help him. It was a privilege.''
Warnick operated on Richard in March, and Kewallal provided round-the-clock care at her home and drove him to physical therapy at the All Children's outpatient care center in New Port Richey. She had to leave in May for another nursing assignment in Toronto, and Richard still needed a second surgery and followup treatments. Kharmai searched for another host family. Sherri and Glenn Paules, who attend First Baptist Church of New Port Richey with the Williamses, stepped up.
In four months, Richard bonded like a brother with the Paules' sons, Lucas, 13, and Eric, 11.
"He became very Americanized,'' Sherri said, "a typical teenager staying up late playing video games, hanging out, being goofy.''
He took his first camping trip, rode on his first golf cart, caught his first fish. He bowled in a wheelchair.
He grew stronger by the day. He stood up straight, about 5 feet 4, though still used a cane. He'd never been to a dentist, so the local SmileFaith Foundation arranged for him to get three cavities filled. In return, Richard volunteered at SmileFaith, helping with mail.
Richard enjoyed attending church with the family. And on his 16th birthday July 16, the family threw him a surprise party, the highlight coming when he was baptized in the pool.
"Richard often asked what made us bring a stranger into our home,'' said Sherri, CEO of Healthcare National Marketing. "He tried to wrap his head around it, and he's very smart. We told him that as Christians, it's our job to look after children. Would we do it again? Absolutely. Richard enriched our lives as well as our whole congregation.''
Richard went home on Aug. 13, accompanied by Kharmai and her husband, Nan, a 30-year veteran administrator with GE Aviation. As they reached his village, they stopped first to see his grandmother, Rajmat LaFleur. Lita described the tearful reunion:
"Richard, wow! You're taller than me! Look at you now.''
The neighborhood kids all came running. Soon, Richard said, he'll join them.
For information about the Children's Circle Mission, visit ccmission.weebly.com. To see video showing Richard before and after his operation, visit links.tampabay.com.